Dir. Curtis Hanson
(2011, Not Rated, 98 min)

During the first half of Too Big to Fail, I wondered why it was made at all. The collapse of the global economy has already been well explained – if not resolved – and not only does the film add little to the discussion, it muddles what we already (sorta) understand. I threw that “sorta” in there because even when I think I understand it I still can’t quite wrap my head around a monetary system that, like Tinkerbell, only seems to exist because we believe in it.

Director Curtis Hanson, whom I’ve always admired, seems at a loss for how to approach this material and gives us a lot of flat scenes of phone calls and boardroom meetings. He struggles to manage Peter Gould’s script, which, based on the Andrew Ross Sorkin book of the same name, casts too wide a net; the financial crisis had a lot of moving parts, and Gould tries to cover all of them in just 98 minutes, which forces the film to pause at intervals to introduce new characters, sometimes in bunches, with identifying titles at the bottom of the screen, and even then it’s hard to keep everyone straight.

Cynthia Nixon, as Michele Davis

That includes the heads of just about every major financial institution involved in the crisis, who become mostly a roll call of recognizable actors because I’ll be damned if I can remember who they all play, and they aren’t given the time to establish personalities with any meaningful detail: James Woods, Matthew Modine, Tony Shalhoub, and Bill Pullman, among others. Add to them Edward Asner as Warren Buffett, Billy Crudup as Timothy Geithner, Dan Hedaya as Barney Frank, and Paul Giamatti as Ben Bernanke. With so many characters, Too Big to Fail is too big to succeed.

The film needs a narrower focus, like in the best scenes in its superior second half. The story revolves around Henry Paulson (William Hurt), the beleaguered Treasury Secretary who didn’t take action to avert the financial meltdown until there was nothing he could do but pick the best of bad options. As he struggles with sleepless nights and doomsday scenarios, Hurt creates an effective portrait of weight-of-the-world anxiety. His closest advisers are played by Topher Grace and Cynthia Nixon, and the film’s best scenes are between the three – bureaucrats cobbling together the future of the global economy.

The film would have been better if it took a more personal approach. What was it like to be in the inner circle? To be among the handful of people who could make or break the world financial infrastructure? That’s a story that hasn’t been told, not on screen at least, and this film touches on it in-between dry scenes of business-speak. As the walls close in and Paulson tries to wrangle CEOs, regulators, and politicians, I was less interested in how we got in this fine mess than in the man trying to get us out of it.

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